Some sad news (“sad” being relative, so bear with me)… Reality Binge, the Fox Reality Channel sketch/clip/variety show I’d be writing on for the past 8 months, was canceled this week. We’ll finish out our final two episodes, and the finale will air on Thursday, December 18.
So first of all… THANK YOU to all of you who watched, laughed, sent emails and posts to the Binge blog, and did everything else you could to help support us. The folks in the office may not know your faces or even your names, but believe me… your support is appreciated more than you can know.
Secondly, I thought I’d take today and write about the experience of being canceled… what it’s like on the inside… because it’s a somewhat unique-- and simultaneously NOT unique-- experience (for anyone who's ever been laid off) that I think is interesting to those on the outside. (Or at least, I remember before I’d worked in TV, I’d always wonder what it was like when a show was canceled. How did they tell the writers? What was the mood in the office? Why were the network executives such idiots and assholes… or were they? All that stuff…)
We learned the news at about 2:45 Tuesday afternoon. Tuesdays are big days at the Reality Binge writers’ offices, because they’re the day the entire script comes together so it can be shot in the studio on Wednesday. Every Tuesday at 2:00 is our “table read,” where all the writers, producers, and network executives gather in the conference room to hear the host, Eric Toms, read through the script. We also read/rehearse/present to the network any skits, pre-taped bits, or clips for that week’s show. Thus, the network executives often use the time before the table read to give us any important updates or information.
We had heard rumors the previous day (Monday), that we’d be learning the next afternoon whether or not Reality Binge would be picked up for a third “cycle,” or season. Fox Reality Channel had been picking us up in 13-episode commitments, and this particular season was due to end on Thursday, December 18. Several weeks earlier, as we were producing our first season and hoping for a second, they gave us the second-season nod about a month before the cycle ended. So this time around, we were expecting to learn our fate by Thanksgiving.
In television, where even the highest-paid writers and producers are freelancers, hopping from one show to the next, getting a pick-up is a big deal… it’s learning whether or not you’ll have income for the next 3 months, 6 months, 12 months… however long the pick-up lasts. If you don’t get picked up, everyone—even the top-of-the-food-chain writers, producers, and showrunners—must hit the streets in search of a new job.
So as the network deadline for picking up a show draws closer, everyone on the staff begins to gossip and speculate. Every tidbit of information becomes grist for the mill:
“We had terrible ratings last night—they’re gonna cancel us…” “No way—we were up against the debates; they couldn’t have expected much…”
“We had a Verizon commercial! That’s high profile—they gotta pick us up!”
“Last night’s ratings were low, but I heard we did great in the target demo… I bet we get the pick-up tomorrow…”
“A friend knows an assistant to the network president. Apparently, we’re his favorite show, so the ratings don’t matter…”
“The network’s nervous… someone posted something on a blog saying we’re too much like The Soup… and our ratings were down…”
Everyone becomes an armchair analyst and a wannabe programming exec. But nobody really knows anything.
The week before Thanksgiving was incredibly tense because we were SURE we were gonna hear before the holiday. In fact, many people thought we’d hear two or three weeks earlier… but we didn’t. So almost every moment that we weren’t writing was spent speculating and guessing what was going on behind the network curtain. We’d have conversations in the parking lot at 2 a.m. attempting to decipher any hint, clue, or rumor we could get our hands on.
It’s easy to think—when you don’t hear the news you’re waiting for—that it means bad news. (“If they were gonna pick us up, they’d have told us by now…”) The truth is: while not knowing may not be GOOD news—after all, hit shows like CSI aren’t sweating when they don’t get their pick-up right away—silence very often means nothing. It could mean the network wants to pick up the show but is discussing changes. It could mean they’re figuring out their next season schedule. In our case, it seemed to mean they hadn’t yet made a decision and wanted to continue seeing how the show performed.
For the most part, the Reality Binge writers and production staff seemed to be optimistic… “How could they NOT pick us up? Everyone at the network loves the show." "It’s so inexpensive!" "It’s a great promotional vehicle for their other series." "They have nothing else like it on their air. And they need SOME kind of show like this. They’d be crazy NOT to pick it up.” We also felt we were just hitting our stride creatively, really figuring out how to do funny, creative stuff with the resources at our disposal. Picking us up was a no-brainer… right?
But when we didn’t hear… and we didn’t hear… and we didn’t hear… our palms started to sweat.
Then, last Monday, we heard rumors that the network would give us their decision the next day. At 2:00, everyone gathered in the conference room for the table read—Eric (the host), the writers, producers, lawyers, network execs. I don’t know if things were quieter, more taut, this week because we were all waiting for the announcement… or if it just seemed that way. Usually, the moments before the table read are light, energetic, even a bit frenetic—there’s an excitement around watching the show come together. But this time, there was a definite elephant in the room. People were talking in hushed tones… there were no jokes or good-natured insults being thrown about… no ribbing or laughing. It was like everyone was in a courtroom moments before learning the sentence of a close friend; would he be set free… or put to death?
And then the table read began. No mention of the pick-up… no yes or no… not even acknowledgement that we were all waiting. It just… started. Again, I don’t know if the table read actually WAS different—less jovial, fewer out-loud laughs, a hesitancy about really enjoying the comedy—or if it just felt that way… but when it ended, and everyone dispersed to head back to their desks, there was a definite sense of, “Did that just happen? Weren’t we supposed to LEARN something? Did we just totally ignore the gigantic elephant in the room?”
But as the writers gathered in the writers room, our showrunner hurried in behind us.
“Hey, guys,” he whispered.&
nbsp; “Bad news: I didn’t want to say this before the meeting, but we’re getting canceled today.”
“How do you know?” we asked.
“Someone leaked it on a blog this morning. It says ‘Fox Reality canceling Reality Binge… the LA offices will find out this afternoon.’ And the president of the network is on his way over here right now.”
“Well, it’s a blog,” I said. “It could be totally wrong. Who knows where that came from.”
“The president of the network is on his way. He’ll be here at 3:30.”
He was right… network presidents generally don’t travel from Santa Monica to North Hollywood—an hour-long drive—to deliver good news about third season pick-ups.
Those few moments—and, I guess, the few hours—after learning the truth are a weird mixture of emotions: sadness, anger, worry, futility. A million things race through your mind… “How could they do this? We were just getting good!” “Great—was all of this for nothing?” “How will I afford Christmas presents?” “Where should I start hunting for another job?” “How will I tell my family?”
For me, I sometimes think the mish-mash of emotions winds up leaving you feeling… ultimately… almost nothing at all. It’s like the color white… I remember learning how white light is actually an amalgamation of all the other colors combined… which is odd, because all the colors combine to make NO color. That’s how this feels. A million emotions combine to leave you feeling almost nothing… just kind of empty, untethered.
It’s only later, over the next few hours and days, that real clarity hits you, washing over you like waves…
There’s the wave of: “The network is a bunch of idiots. They never gave this show a chance… they squashed what made it good… they never promoted or marketed it the way they should’ve.” I don’t care what show it is… EVERY CANCELED SHOW IN THE HISTORY OF TELEVISION HAS THIS CONVERSATION… ABOUT 15,000 TIMES. Arrested Development, Jericho, Kath & Kim, Reality Binge. There’s usually some truth in it… but sometimes—many times—shows simply fail. It’s not the show’s fault. It’s not the network’s fault. It just failed.
There’s the wave of: “I have to tell my friends and family we failed. We weren’t good enough.”
There’s the wave of: “Shit—I should’ve started job-hunting already. What if I never get another gig?”
There’s the wave of: “Maybe I should just quit writing and get a ‘real job’… so I don’t have to go through this again.”
There’s the wave of: “We’re the best show on television… screw this network!... let’s just sell the show somewhere else!” Almost every producer, when his or her show gets canceled, talks about selling the show somewhere else. Sometimes it actually happens—like when Scrubs was canceled by NBC this year, then ABC Studios resold it to ABC—but these cases are few and far between.
And of course, all of these waves are washing over you while you still have to plow forward and finish your season’s remaining episodes. (Sometimes shows are canceled and shut down immediately. In Reality Binge’s case, we’re finishing the last episodes of this cycle.)
But jumping back to Tuesday…
The network president and VP showed up, as promised, at 3:30… when they had a closed-door meeting with the two heads of the production company, Weller-Grossman, which makes the show. They emerged about twenty minutes later… the execs took off… and the executive producers gathered together the entire staff to break the news. Each of them made a little speech, talking about what a great job we did… how gracious the network was in saying that they DID love the show—unfortunately, it just wasn’t getting the numbers they needed… etc.
These meetings always feel like funerals… they’re sad and gloomy, everyone already knows the news… but their true functions are to A) cement the truth, let it be said officially, and B) bring everyone together for a moment of cathartic communal mourning. People sing the praises of each other and the show… how fun it was to work together… how well everyone gelled… etc.
And then, after the meeting, almost immediately… everyone went back to work. After all, we had a show to shoot in less than 24 hours, and while it didn’t seem to matter much anymore, I think it was nice to know we still had a common purpose for a couple weeks. Of course, things were different as we filtered back into the writers room… jokes were flying as usual, but there was definitely more gallows humor…
“Let’s turn in all jokes about drugs and Jesus (the network hates drug references and religion jokes)—what are they gonna do, fire us?...”
“Hey, instead of shooting in the studio, let’s do the exact same show… but have Eric in a bathtub with razor blades…”
To be fair, the network execs and lawyers have been genuinely contrite over the last few days, telling us repeatedly how much they loved the show… how painful this decision was. Ultimately, they’ve told us, the show did GREAT online. We were incredibly successful virally. Unfortunately, the Internet viewers never seemed to find their way back to television… and while the world is on the verge of real TV/Internet convergence, we’re not there yet… and TV is what matters.
So… we trudge on, finishing the final two episodes in our order, knowing—hoping—we made Reality Binge the best show we could… and we begin the hunt for a new show, the next job. Some of us have agents, who will help… but whether you have an agent or not, it’s usually up to you to find that next gig.
Every show ends… sometimes after a year, sometimes after five. And when it’s over, you’re usually back to square one, searching for that next job. This doesn’t change much whether you’re at the top of the food chain… the bottom… or, like most TV writers, somewhere in the middle. The upside is: you always know you’re in good company. Sure, it gets easier to find jobs after you’ve had a few… but I know mid-level and high-level writers and producers who have been out of work for months, even years. Most of them will find something, hopefully sooner than later.
But as painful as getting canceled—and the constant insecurity—can be, this is the name of the game for everyone working in TV. Which means those who survive have to be scrappy. In fact, I’m not sure whether working in TV—or being any kind of freelancer—“makes” you scrappy… or you become a freelancer BECAUSE you’re scrappy.
Either way, it’s not always fun… but it’s the life we choose.
Welcome to television.